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Capsule History

June 2024
14min read

Americans have been launching time capsules into the future for over a century now, and today we’re creating more than ever. Why is it that so few reach their destination? And that so many merely bore their recipients?

Ever since it was dedicated in 1933, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal has been one of the city’s most stirring sights. It’s a museum center now, but when I was growing up in the 1950s, train trips with my parents began and ended in that vast half-dome rotunda. There’s one thing about being a kid, and a short one at that: You get to know what’s close to the ground. So it was that while most eyes were drawn up to the terminal’s majestic murals, I spotted a small plaque to the right of the entrance, just above the pavement. Inside that cornerstone, the inscription disclosed, was a time capsule. I remember finding it oddly thrilling to think about a secret message encased in stone.

The idea also appealed to Ronald Reagan. At the 1976 National Republican (Konvention in Kansas City, after Gerald Ford had won the presidential nomination, Reagan was invited to address the hall. It would be a moment of considerable political drama. The California governor had battled the President throughout the primary campaign but lost. Now, with this speech, it was time to bring the party factions together in a spirit of shared Republican purpose. Also, for the recently defeated candidate, it was the opportunity to voice his credo, with an eye toward future bids for the White House. Reagan later developed a reputation for having his every public utterance carefully scripted, but that night he headed for the podium with no prepared remarks, at least according to his aide Martin Anderson. This is the device he seized on to capture the imagination of the crowd:


“I had an assignment the other day. Someone asked me to write a letter for a time capsule that is going to be opened in Los Angeles a hundred years from now, on our tercentennial. It sounded like an easy assignment. They suggested I write something about the problems and issues of the day, and I set out to do so, riding down the coast in an automobile looking at the blue Pacific out on one side and the Santa Ynez Mountains on the other, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was going to be that beautiful a hundred years from now as it was on that summer day.


“And then, as I tried to write … let your own minds turn to that task. You’re going to write for people a hundred years from now who know all about us. We know nothing about them. We don’t know what kind of a world they’ll be living in.”

Planting time capsules has become a widespread ritual. If your company, organization, city, or nation is celebrating a significant anniversary, then mark the event by dedicating a time capsule. If the date on your calendar is about to show a lot of zeros, do the same. This year preparations are under way for thousands of dedications. But it’s a curious practice really. If you have a collection of keepsakes, why salt them away from view for decades, centuries, even millenniums? Why not keep them in the public eye? With time capsules it’s the hiding that creates the allure. The process of sealing now and unsealing later lends mystery and significance to the contents. And all time capsules, regardless of what’s placed inside, contain the same thing: a message. Each capsule expresses the nearly universal urge to communicate across the ages. Reagan knew a powerful image when he saw one.

If nostalgia is a process of recalling the past selectively, emphasizing some memories to the exclusion of others, then time capsules are a kind of nostalgia in reverse. Their purpose is to influence how the present will be remembered in days to come. In contrast with remnants of the past that survive by chance, which are what historians and archeologists usually study, time capsules are intentional artifacts, compact packages of what the people in one time and place want succeeding generations to know about them. As Jonathan Greenfield, a history student at the University of Illinois, put it, if a random artifact is like a candid photograph of the past, then a time capsule is like a posed portrait.

Building stones have been used as repositories for records and cultural relics for millenniums. In the seventh century B.C. Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, wrote: “I had monuments made of bronze, lapis lazuli, alabaster and white limestone and inscriptions of baked clay … and I deposited them in the foundations and left them for future times.” In the Middle Ages the foundation stones of major structures often contained the names of contributors to the building fund. At the ceremonies in 1872 for the new home of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, a lead box was placed in the cornerstone, containing a history of the academy, a list of its directors, a catalogue of its holdings, a proof set of U.S. coins, some newspapers, and other items that, according to an account of the proceedings, “may become very interesting relics in some remote period of the future.”

If those Philadelphia relics were ever to be retrieved, it would be a matter of chance: No provisions had been made for their box to be opened. That key element of what we now generally think of as a time capsule appeared four years later, again in Philadelphia. As Americans celebrated the Centennial, some turned their thoughts not only back a hundred years but also forward for the same span. The attractions of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition included a Century Safe, which contained, among other things, photographs and autographs of dignitaries and a book on temperance. Visitors to the display signed leather-bound volumes, which were added to the collection. Finally the safe, more than five feet high and lined with purple velvet, was sealed with instructions that it be opened in 1976. Stored under the steps of the Capitol, it was opened on schedule, as part of the U.S. Bicentennial festivities.

“The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever,” wrote Jacobs in 1940. He would save it in his “Crypt.”

Once established, the tradition of fixed opening dates for time capsules was adopted widely, on both a municipal and a personal scale. Cincinnati observed its centennial in 1888 by launching a hundred-year parcel, and Cleveland did the same in 1896. Following a reunion of Civil War veterans at Chicago’s Palmer House in 1879, the retired brigadier general John J. McNulta filled a glass bottle with mementos of the event, sealed it, and attached a note saying it should be kept unopened for a hundred years. One of the items was a cigar, donated by the guest of honor at the reunion, Ulysses S. Grant. Fulfilling McNulta’s wishes, when the bottle was opened in 1979, his three greatgrandsons smoked the cigar.

While each time capsule is usually associated with a specific organization, city, or other such entity, a few projects, starting in the 1930s, were planned with a more ambitious mission: preserving the record of an entire civilization. In 1936 Thornwell Jacobs, president of Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University, announced his plan to memorialize the world around him. The educator looked at ancient civilizations and found the view largely obscured. He noted with chagrin how much remained unknown about life thousands, even hundreds of years earlier. Egyptian tombs offer some insight, he observed, as do such sites as Pompeii and Herculaneum, but there are not enough of these “happy circumstances” to provide an adequate picture. For our own times we can do better, he concluded: “We … are the first generation equipped to perform our archeological duty to the future without the help of natural phenomena.” With the assistance of Jacobs, tomorrow’s historians would not have to struggle like those of today. He would take a large receptacle and fill it with enough artifacts and records to provide those distant scholars with the convenience of one-stop shopping.

Jacobs called his chamber the “Crypt of Civilization.” In the administration building on the Oglethorpe campus, a room at bedrock level was converted for the task. It took three years to collect and prepare the hundreds of items that made up that tightly packed museum. Daily life and popular culture of the 1930s emerge from the long inventory of appliances, implements, toys, apparel, and much more. There are an electric razor and a quart of beer, a piece of aluminum foil and a set of Lincoln Logs, six Artie Shaw records and eleven FDR speeches. Six thousand years of formal knowledge are ostensibly distilled into more than 640,000 microfilm pages.

When Jacobs began his project, he decreed that the door be unsealed in 6,177 years—the amount of time that had passed, by his precise reckoning, since the dawn of recorded history. He undertook the project to preserve a record of his civilization after its eventual, albeit distant, demise. But by the time of the sealing ceremony for the crypt, on May 25, 1940, the Nazi sweep through Western Europe was two weeks old, and Jacobs feared the end was nearly at hand. Addressing those who would receive his handiwork in 8113, he proclaimed, “The world is engaged in burying our civilization forever, and here in this crypt we leave it to you.”

The mood had been a good deal brighter two years earlier, when the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company began planning its participation in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The company had been seeking a way to burnish its image as a “forward-looking” institution. G. Edward Pendray, the public relations executive in charge of bringing Westinghouse to the fair, was familiar with preparations for the Crypt of Civilization; indeed, before joining Westinghouse, he had written a public appeal calling for support of the venture. Now he would convert a simple cornerstone dedication for the Westinghouse pavilion into an undertaking of similarly grand and far-reaching scope. Since their purpose is to remain motionless, often for eons, other time capsules, before and since, have usually been drab canisters. But the fair was a sort of climax to the great age of streamlining, so Pendray’s capsule, which he got ready in just three months, took the form of a sleek seven-and-a-half-foot torpedo to be sealed until the year 6939. It was lowered fifty feet into its vault beneath Flushing Meadow at exactly noon on September 23, 1938, the autumnal equinox. The Westinghouse chairman, Andrew W. Robertson, said to the assembled crowd, “May the Time Capsule sleep well! When it is awakened, five thousand years from now, may its contents be found a suitable gift to our far-off descendants!”

The most lasting legacy of the Westinghouse project is its name: It was the first “time capsule” to be called that.

The slogan of the fair was “the world of tomorrow”; the Westinghouse time capsule aimed the national gaze at a point fifty centuries away. The Crypt of Civilization was intended to last longer, and it was far larger. But no other capsule had been more celebrated at the time of its creation than the Westinghouse cylinder, and no other remained more vividly in the public consciousness years after it was sealed away. Fairgoers thronged to peer at it deep in its “immortal well,” which would be filled tight at the fair’s end, and they studled a replica of its contents in a glass tube that can be studied still, at the George Westinghouse Museum in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania.


The time capsule included messages to the “Futurians” from the physicists Albert Einstein, Robert A. Millikan, and Karl T. Compton, who was MIT’s president, and from the Nobel Prize-winning writer Thomas Mann as well as from Oglethorpe’s Thornwell Jacobs. After describing both the achievements and perils of his age, Einstein closed by writing, “I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.” The capsule also contained a newsreel created for the occasion, a microfilm “essay” of twenty-two thousand pages, seventy-five samples of textiles and other materials, and thirty-five “small articles of common use.” A glance at the list suggests how much has changed in little more than sixty years. Who today appreciates the song that went “Flat-foot floogie with a floy floy”? The words and music are in the capsule. So are a slide rule and a Lilly Daché woman’s hat. Yet some items speak of continuity. The Bible endures, and so does Mickey Mouse.

Once the torpedo itself was out of view, the most evident, continuing legacy of Pendray’s project was the name he gave it. Before 1938 there had been the “safe” and the “box” in Philadelphia, a “casket” in Cleveland, the “crypt” (or, as Jacobs sometimes termed it, the “epitome") in Atlanta. But Pendray called his repository a “time capsule,” and after the New York World’s Fair, that became the universal label. The outcome might have been different if Pendray had stayed with his original idea. Considering the thing’s shape, he was going to call it the “Time Bomb.”

At the end of World War II, Westinghouse gave some thought to digging up the time capsule 4,994 years ahead of schedule and adding a description of the atomic bomb. Nothing came of that idea, but by 1964 Westinghouse was back in the time-capsule business. Another New York World’s Fair provided the chance to augment the earlier venture. The company created a new capsule, the same size and shape, and buried it near the first. This time the artifacts included credit cards, birth control pills, a plastic heart valve, a Beatles record, and a piece of the re-entry shield from Scott Carpenter’s Mercury spacecraft. Both capsules are to be opened at the same time in 6939.

Montreal’s Expo ’67 had a hundred-year time capsule. The Osaka Japan Expo ’70 worked up an elaborate affair: twin kettleshaped containers, each weighing more than two metric tons, with identical contents. One is to remain sealed for five thousand years, the other is to be opened for periodic checks every century.


Despite these and many others worldwide, time capsules are still “a peculiarly American phenomenon,” says the science writer Dava Sobel. “Who else but a world power with an embarrassingly short past could hit on such an idea? After all, when you encapsulate the essence of an era and declare that the container can’t be opened for millenniums, abracadabra—you’ve made instant history out of your present.”

Perhaps nowhere was this American zeal more evident than in Juneau, Alaska, in 1994. Though it’s the state capital, Juneau still retains an intimate, close-knit atmosphere, and when a hundred-year time capsule was proposed, it became a project for that whole town. No one knows how many items were contributed, but they number in the thousands, each one constituting a small piece in the mosaic of life in Juneau. Most are common things: restaurant menus, a cigarette pack, golf balls, a Sony Walkman. To house it all, project organizers came up with a novel variation on the concept, a time capsule with a view. A room in the lobby of a government building was converted for the purpose. The room has two plate-glass windows and is lighted with bulbs that can be changed from the outside. The time capsule therefore is truly sealed, and much of its contents are hidden in boxes and other containers, so Juneau residents of 2094 will have lots to explore when they go inside. But plenty of the items are visible from the outside through those windows. So far, after only a few years, most of them still look familiar, but visitors will be able to watch as they slowly turn into relics.

Traveling through time turns out to be a treacherous journey; most capsules fail in their mission.

Time capsules are extending into new realms, from outer space to inner space to Cyberspace. NASA has placed plaques, phonograph records, and other devices on interstellar probes to show distant civilizations what earth dwellers are like. A Japanese-led international research team plans to seed time capsules under the surface of Antarctica and, after that, on the moon. The advent of the Internet has spawned a number of computer-based ventures. MIT’s Sloan School of Management took digital samples of text, video, and sound, representing the world as seen on-line in early 1999, encrypted them, and sealed the result on the school’s Web site. In keeping with the pace at which the Internet evolves, this virtual time capsule is to be opened after just five years.

Then there are the personal time capsules. Michael Orelove, who led the huge Juneau effort, also creates his own time capsule each year and opens it twenty years later. Andy Warhol did much the same thing, though with much greater frequency, eventually filling more than six hundred boxes. All the detritus of an artist’s life is preserved: the calendars, place cards, letters, exhibition announcements, door-prize tickets, hotel bills, airline tickets, and on and on. Warhoi kept a box by his desk, and when it was filled, an assistant would seal it and he would start on the next one. The artist’s boxes survived him. They are now part of the archives of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

Amid all this enthusiasm for time capsules grand and modest, one uncomfortable truth is often overlooked: Most fail in their mission. Traveling through time, it turns out, is a treacherous journey, and the attrition rate is daunting. Many of the vessels fall victim to the elements. When the cornerstone of the Empire State Building was dedicated on September 9, 1930, a copper box was placed within it, containing, as Al Smith announced, “certain articles of value indicating the trend of the time. If this building is ever demolished to make way for a greater building, the people of that day can read pretty accurately the history of this day.” Contrary to Smith’s expectation, the building far outlasted the time capsule. About fifty years later, in preparation for an anniversary celebration, the box was removed. It had filled with water, which had destroyed most of its contents.

Another risk is mischief. The celebration of Indian Independence Day in 1973 included burial of a 280-pound time capsule, which included portraits of national heroes and a lengthy history of India since independence. The time capsule was supposed to remain sealed for ‘five thousand years, but only a few years later a new government had the capsule unearthed because of certain “inaccuracies” in the history. A U.S. Bicentennial time capsule never even made it into the ground. After a wagon train toured the nation, gathering the signatures of twenty-two million Americans, the scrolls were supposed to be buried in a time capsule at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, with President Gerald Ford presiding. But the capsule was stolen out of a van at the burial site.

The committee members charged with burying Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania’s capsule all died without saying where they had put it.

Once a time capsule disappears from view, its fate usually is to never be seen again. The city of Corona, California, for example, has managed to lose seventeen of them. When Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, resolved to bury a town time capsule, the project was entrusted to a committee drawn from the local gentry. Now all of them are dead, and no one knows where they put it. To help prevent such losses, the International Time Capsule Society maintains a registry in which organizations and individuals can record locations and other information about their time capsules.


But this safeguard provides no protection against one more pitfall: Of the time capsules that do survive to be opened, many turn out to be disappointing. When that time capsule I had noticed at Cincinnati’s Union Terminal was opened in 1983, an eager crowd gathered for the occasion. They were rewarded with seven old railroad timetables, some yellowed local newspapers, congratulatory letters from politicians, and a typed history of the terminal.

Given all the effort put into time capsules, it’s surprising how frequently the creators misjudge their audiences. For example, two staples of time-capsule collections, coins and newspapers, are generally available elsewhere, and rosters of committees and minutes of meetings do little to stir the imagination generations later.

Items of daily use and popular culture make more of an impact. When Pendray was planning the Westinghouse time capsule, he consulted various authorities about what to include. One scientist replied disdainfully, “Who in 5,000 years’ time will care about Howard Hughes or college football or fashion shows or Donald Duck or women’s hats or cigarettes or textiles or fountain pens?” But those are exactly the sorts of things that do interest anyone who likes to imagine what life was like in past eras.

When time capsules contain written messages, those are usually the items most treasured; despite the fact that these words have been composed for posterity, they often have an appealing intimacy. One such letter was unearthed in St. Louis in 1996. During the demolition of the building that had housed the A. S. Aloe Company, a surgical-supply firm, a well-preserved time capsule was recovered from the cornerstone. It contained catalogues, product descriptions, medical journals, and the like, all immaculate but generally uninspiring. At the top, though, was a poignant greeting that the company president, Howard F. Baer, had composed in September 1940, at the time of the London blitz: “It is difficult to write this letter, partly because I do not know when you will read it—but partly also because one must always feel somewhat self-conscious about posterity. There is the feeling that after all one probably has very little to say that will interest the yet several generations unborn.

“Were there at this moment any real feeling of security as to any future, this letter would be easier. But even as I write, that part of the world which means most to us (Europe and North America) is in the throes of what is apparently some kind of life and death struggle. It is even possible that before this letter can be placed inside the cornerstone England will have fallen. We hope not. Will you then, as you read this, one hundred, two hundred years from now, yawn over 1940 and its little troubles? Will there be yet an England? Will wars be obsolete perhaps because of scientific progress making war even more terrible than now? …

“Will there be any business such as ours—any profit motive; or will you live in a planned society with intelligently worked out wealth and goods distribution? It does not perhaps greatly matter. You will live and laugh and learn and cry as we do. We have enjoyed our work and had a zest for it. No more can you do, though you may be much healthier than we—better fed and more scientifically bred. And I think you will admit that the mere fact that we build here and now a new building when aerial bombs are laying waste London and Berlin and when some of us feel that there may be no future for free men, indicates that the human spirit is incurably optimistic.

“May it be so with you as with us!”

Baer’s eloquent message suggests the essential thing about time capsules: They help fulfill the worthwhile desire to leave a legacy—though they foster a few unrealistic expectations along the way. Yes, it’s presumptuous to imagine that we can engineer a truly representative sample of our civilization; despite the good intentions of Thornwell Jacobs and others, future historians and archeologists will still have to root around in our leavings the old-fashioned way. But for those lucky enough to open one, a time capsule provides a true link with the past, however imperfect. And whether or not it survives to reach the intended recipients, launching one starts people thinking about what the past and future mean to them. Along with the trinkets and clippings and snapshots, time capsules convey an appreciation of preservation and life’s continuum. “For the truth is that at some level, whether it’s conscious or not,” writes the sociologist Albert Bergesen, “time capsules are intended less as messages from ourselves to the future than as messages from ourselves to ourselves.”

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